A Is For Artist: Drawing By The Book

A total work of art? The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk is indeed ambitious and ground-breaking, but it's still current. Dave Ball is working to conform a whole piece of art by visually representing words in alphabetic order as they appear in the dictionary. The young English artist has dedicated himself intensively throughout the past two years to complete the first part of a lifelong project: to draw – with some restrictions – the entries of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Every word starting with the letter “A” is currently on display at Art Claims Impulse. Featuring over four hundred works, "A to Z: From Aardvark to Axle" is a collection of drawings and prints that hang frameless in three separate rooms. We sought the artist so he could give us some As to our Qs.


Ball wrote a manifesto with certain rules to narrow the infinite spectrum of words as he began his quest. “How many words are there? When you look at a dictionary, that’s the first thing you want to know. The answer is: there’s no answer. Dictionaries are all arbitrary selections. The most complete English dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary, has at the moment two million words and every year it grows and grows. So probably it is a pragmatic thing: I can’t make two million drawings. I chose the Concise Oxford Dictionary completely randomly – it was on my desk.”

A is also for Anatomy. Photo: Chris Phillips

He has been using Google's image search engine to look at words and their triggered visual responses. “It’s a really interesting thing to use Internet in this methodical, alphabetical way," Ball tells me," You end up googling things which you would have never normally looked for. Most things in your language you understand already; you don’t need to look for them. You start to learn what search engines throw up."

The artist mentions doing lots of research on dictionaries, encyclopedias and visual dictionaries. For example, learning the history of dictionaries and the different organization criteria used throughout periods in history. A noteworthy fact is that alphabetical order is only a recent standard – words tended to be organized by theme just decades ago. Previous dictionaries also contained the author’s views on the usage of words and the writer’s personality would stamp more. “That’s also relevant to this project: as long as I do the drawings, it’s very much about me.”

BAPs: How did this project first come to mind?

Dave Ball: Originally, I was looking at the idea of ‘randomness.’ It is a well known technique that when an artist is going through a creative block, they pick up a dictionary and open it in a random page and pick a word. So, whatever you are working on, you choose the word and you try to bring that concept to what you are doing. It takes you outside of your straight thinking. I was researching randomness about two years ago and I tried doing it. While at it, I became fascinated at the idea that the dictionary was telling me what to draw. 

The complete installation conveys a work-in-progress feel. Photo: Chris Phillips.

BAPs: Tell us about the process – how long did this take?

DB: The research takes a while. Although I’m conscious not to spend too long on any one drawing cause no individual drawing is ever the work – it’s always the work in relation to what came before and what came after. I definitely don’t want people to buy individual drawings. The idea of a sequence is lost then, and I really like it. With one drawing you lose this idea of going from one concept to the other. The logic of language brings up different connections. 

Key factors to Dave's endeavor are limits or restrictions. These drawings express his personality, some of his critical positions regarding Politics and a few meaningful life events. That is why, for example, unknown words to him did not make the cut: it is his vocabulary and world view he is trying to bring about with the drawings. He chose places in Berlin because that is where his “offline” visual world takes place and many examples are extracted from places he has visited in the past or that somehow relate to him. 

BAPs: Why did you choose nouns, given that they are the biggest word category?

DB: It’s to make the project realizable. There’s the sense they are things: they are what makes the world and verbs and adjectives are more words that you use to say something about the thing. I think nouns have more to do with the world, even though the abstract still exists outside language. I’m constantly making arbitrary rules; the whole process is about arbitrary selection of subject matter. 

BAPs: What kind of meaning do you try to convey? There is a semiotic meaning to many of them, yet very few are literal and then certain life events or things you know from your own encyclopedia are also expressed. So you use different forms of giving meaning to things.

Transmiting literal meaning through facial expression. Photo: Chris Phillips.

DB: Whenever it’s possible, I make a very clear representation. Generally speaking, I go with the most straightforward approach. However, with abstract words you can’t do that. There is no image that completely embodies the word “appetite” for example. So either you have to pick an example of the word or you can be more playful or critical. There are one or two images that are political and they reflect my position on things quite often. So you have to take a position on how to approach these words, there is no other choice. I like that this reflects more my personal view, my references, my background, my personality.

Ball on delimiting subject matter: “The art that is interesting to me is the art that speaks about the world. I think art should articulate something about the real world.”

BAPs: Could you say that you’ve learned anything special about the world by doing this project? 

DB: I know everything about subjects that begin with the letter “A” (laughs). Specially seeing this exhibition altogether, I realize how much of me there is out there. It’s quite overwhelming sometimes and I think every artist should do this. Not the whole project obviously, but it really tells you a lot about your approach to media and the way that you think about things. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what it is to be an artist. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the world when I finish the project.

Plan B

After the artist’s return from a Residency in Canada, he will start with the letter “B.” The plan so far is to introduce new rules or new media for each letter: “With 'B' I'm thinking about the rule where I can’t do any research, because most of these drawings are based on google images. So now I want to be more spontaneous and rely more on what is my grasp of the world.” 

Dave Ball with the universal-looking art work. Photo: Chris Phillips.

BAPs: Do you want to include every letter of the alphabet? If so, how would you exhibit the finished work of art?

DB: Yes. It will take many years – at the current rate probably thirty years. At the moment I’m not planning what to do when it’s finished. I guess I’ll just retire (laughs). Maybe for the Cs I would like to use photography. I was very careful to put the word ‘visualization’ so it doesn’t have to be a drawing. To talk about another plan that I have for another letter, I’d like at some point to invite other artists to make the drawings. I wrote the rules so it was never about me. That’s why I wrote [in the manifesto] “If the word is not in the artist’s vocabulary.” That was to allow for possible collaboration in the future. I’m very interested in collaboration in other parts of my practice. I do a lot of video and photography, and I do some performance for the camera. I don’t use one specific media; I am more interested in the concept. I would say I am a conceptual artist. 

When entering the exhibition to meet Dave, I remembered a passage from The Library of Babel, the famous Borges short story: “When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist-somewhere in some hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind's hope.”

Language allows us to somehow grasp and contain the world. However, images and visual representation broaden the spectrum of meaning and thrive with connotative power.  What Ball has created is the perfect combination between the two to raise questions of constraining and broadening the world through art.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A famous line by Shakespeare's Juliet also came to mind: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Things are, in fact, things. Art, however, transforms them and plays with them through various languages: it makes us aware of them. As I left the exhibition, I noticed Ball's drawing of the word "apprehension" with a hint of a smile.

Article by Sofía Martinelli

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